The Middle East & Africa (MEA) region is generally an up-and-coming region with respect to its wider economic development. Specifically, the region has seen a growth and importance in fintech, producing its own unique innovations, entrepreneurs, and thought leaders in the space. As The Fintech Times in September celebrates the Women in Fintech, we take a moment to hear more from some of the leading female leaders in the MENA. One of them is Sandra Knight, who is originally American-Lebanese, but lives in Bahrain and is an expert in fintech and, specifically, financial wellness.
Sandra Knight is a Co-Founder and the COO of Hayatech, a Bahrain-based, technology platform fostering an ecosystem around wellness with a mission to motivate healthy behavioral change, leveraging on gamification, wearables, and wellness rewards. Sandra is a member of the Women in FinTech Bahrain. She holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Finance from the University of Texas at Austin, and Master of Arts degree from Northern Arizona University in Rhetoric and Curriculum Development.
Describe your career journey.
Prior to launching Hayatech, I established my career around wellness technology at Johns Hopkins Aramco Healthcare as a healthcare Software Developer and Instructional Designer. Throughout my tenure with Johns Hopkins Healthcare Services, I served as the department Wellness Champion, empowering a speaker series regarding wellness in the workplace to promote employee health. Motivated by a passion to activate wellness lifestyles, I subsequently initiated a community-driven enterprise in Bahrain, connecting constituents with local wellness providers through healthy living workshops and mindfulness sessions.
Driven to promote women in business, I served social and impact causes in the realm of training and education, working primarily to offer courses and workshops to females wanting to refine their business and technical communication skills.
As a recognised thought leader and a female, what difficulties have you faced in your career?
Work-life balance has remained my highest barrier and on-going challenge, not only as a founder and entrepreneur, but as an employee within the earlier part of my career. While this is a challenge that is certainly shared by men, statistically, countless research studies reveal that women consider balancing work and family life as the single most significant obstacle to their career aspirations.
The reality is that women remain underrepresented in the workforce, even as entrepreneurs. For example, Bahrain is ranked among the highest rates of female ownership and entrepreneurship, and yet, only 1 in 5 homegrown Bahraini startups have been initiated by women. We remain underrepresented in leadership roles in the global business sector—only a quarter of senior managers in mid-market businesses globally are women. Women also remain underrepresented in STEM sectors—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—which undoubtedly affects societal innovation.
On a positive note, these demographics are shifting on account of work-life balance favorable policy, virtual workspaces, increased education, shifts in cultural norms, and role models that surface through success stories.
What are the future trends and predictions you see happening in the region?
While digital innovation will continue to be profoundly shaped and influenced by our need to thrive in a “new normal” driven by the COVID-19 pandemic, there is no disputing that health and wellness has been brought to the forefront of the attention of our communities. More importantly, while workplace wellness was previously considered by regionally-based businesses as simply an extension of their Corporate Social Responsibility initiative, nurturing a “well workforce” has accelerated in priority towards serving as the foundation of organizational resilience. This paradigm shift resonates in parallel to the rapid adoption of digital innovation—what was once perceived as a ‘nice to have’ is a now a ‘need to have’.
Locally, and in the fintech space, Bahrain has positioned itself for rapid expansion as a world class and well-respected financial regulatory system under the auspicious oversight of the Central Bank of Bahrain—providing process efficiency and serving as a catalyst for financial wellness. Bahrain’s ability to leverage its robust oversight to provide investors with the confidence of governance is a major strategic advantage for attracting international fintech players along with nurturing its homegrown ecosystem.
What advice and recommendations do you want to give future female entrepreneurs and thought leaders who are based in the Middle East & North Africa (MENA) region?
Gender parity is fundamental to the growth, innovation, market awareness, and future-readiness of global economies. The promotion of work-life balance favorable policy not only attracts more women and, therefore, diversity into a company, it improves the corporate culture at large. The bottom line: If companies are not actively shaping policy around promoting conducive environments for women, then they are not actively recruiting the most qualified individuals for their positions because they are, in effect, neglecting half of their talent pool by creating a barrier for entry.
To women, I suggest specializing in the tech sector. The greatest competitive advantage of any country is a human capital base that is empowered to harness the advantages of technology. If discovery, development, and innovation interest you, there is no better industry.
And finally, I entreat women to support one another through training and cultivating mentoring relationships that provide guidance, inspiration, and strategic connections. Mentorship can break the cycle that continues to inhibit women from professional growth and success.